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Govt uncovers secret spy unit

By SEAN DOUGLAS Thursday, November 11 2010

THE People’s Partnership Government has just learnt that even after they took office after the May 24 general election, their members were secretly spied on by a shadowy agency whose existence was not even widely known.

“They were totally off the radar,” bemoaned a top Government Minister to Newsday yesterday.

A top-secret spy unit, the Special Intelligence Agency (SIA), kept spying on members of the Government and members of the Opposition, even after the recent change of regime, said the minister. The unit used wiretapping to spy on top members of the PNM, UNC and COP, plus an array of other top persons in public life, since 2005 until its spying operations were shut down a fortnight ago after exposure by Special Branch of the TT Police Service.

The source alleged that the spy unit was set up by a former high-ranking official of the former PNM government, to which the unit continued to report to even after the change in regime. “He was tapping his own people,” said the source.

Newsday understands those politicians who were spied on include Prime Minister Kamla Persad- Bissessar, COP leader Winston Dookeran, Works Minister Jack Warner and Leader of the Opposition Dr Keith Rowley. The minister lamented that instead of gathering information to fight crime, the spy unit helped the former high-ranking official politically.

The SIA spied on their targets by not only wiretapping their cell-phones and land-lines, but also by intercepting their emails and cell-phone “text” messages.

Newsday understands the SIA was spying on members of the present Government, members of the parliamentary Opposition, members of the media including reporters and editors, trade unionists, environmentalists, university lecturers, members of the Judiciary, and even a popular comedian. “High level persons were tapped without their knowledge or consent,” complained the source.

Newsday was told that among the persons whose cellphones and land-lines were tapped were top members of the media.

The source said the new Government had initially thought they had solved the problem of wiretapping done under the former regime by the Special Anti-Crime Unit of TT (SAUTT) by appointing a Steering Committee to examine SAUTT’s role and future, and by changing the SAUTT leadership, until recently learning of the hitherto unknown SIA that operated independently of SAUTT.

This secret unit had bases in Port-of-Spain and across north Trinidad, said the source, and employed 200 persons on staff.

The minister said that two weeks ago, police officers from Special Branch locked down the spy unit. The source alleged that $5.8 million in cash was found in a vault at the premises of the unit, which the source speculated was a slush fund to finance the day to day expenses of the unit. The minister alleged massive corruption in the use of this money, saying employees of the unit were paid to become suppliers of goods to the unit, such as selling the unit a car.

The source lamented the phone-tapping, saying it could have been used to try to blackmail judges to rule a certain way in a court case involving members of the PNM.

Special Branch moved in on the unit on October 28 to head off attempts to “sanitise” the system. The minister said the Government has fired the unit head, an ex-Coast Guard officer who had been hired just one month before the last general election to head the unit and head the legitimate Strategic Services Agency.

The minister said that a forensic audit must now be done.

The source told Newsday that the head of the unit had sent out a letter dated September 28 to all staff as a coded message to delete sensitive files from their computer systems, titled, “Subject: Personal File Sharing”, to try to head off a pending probe by Special Branch.

Cabinet, said the minister, will appoint a new head and decided on the future of the unit, which although tainted, is said to have an extraordinary technological capability to tackle the criminal element.

The minister said more revelations are expected on Friday in the Lower House.

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